Wave, which is backed by executives like Scooter Braun and Superfly co-founder Rick Farman, has put on more than 50 virtual events (called "Waves") with artists like John Legend and Alison Wonderland. Acts perform live at the company's Los Angeles studio while motion capture technology records their movements, which are replicated by the artist's digital avatar in a personalized virtual space. Wave concerts are then distributed across YouTube, Twitch, Facebook, Twitter and gaming channels.
The new "virtual gifting" feature builds on Wave's mission to bring the interactive elements of video games into the virtual performance space, making each event unpredictable and unique. Established Wave features like live Q&A and audience voting on set changes will also be part of "Total Fiasco," while the virtual gifts add a choose-your-own-adventure element.
"As the audience, you don't really have that many inputs into the show beyond just clapping and maybe holding your lighter in the air," says Wave co-founder/CEO Adam Arrigo, a former video game designer. "But I've always been inspired by games that could actually strengthen that connection [between fan and performer], and feed it back in both ways."
"Total Fiasco" is free to attend, but the virtual gifts cost between $3 and $100, and audience members can additionally make direct donations, introducing a new revenue stream for artists. (Arrigo declined to disclose the artist revenue share of virtual gift revenue for now, since the feature is still being developed and splits are currently decided on a case-by-case basis.) Each virtual gift also displays the buyer's name beside it, further incentivizing fans to make purchases.
The result is distinct from traditional "virtual tipping," a concept popular in Asia where fans can donate virtual items and real money to their favorite celebrities during livestreams. In Wave's version, gifts benefit not only the performer but the performance itself.
"You are gifting the money to an artist, but at the same time, it creates entertainment and these moments," Arrigo says. For example, if one fans sends bubbles into the venue and then another fan gifts Dillon laser eyes, Dillon can use the laser to pop the bubbles. "It's pretty simple from a gameplay standpoint, but when you start to introduce those types of interactive features, the experience becomes a lot more exciting and a lot deeper," Arrigo says. "We're not trying to be a livestream or a concert. This is a new type of expression."
Arrigo says that his team first came up with the concept of a "Total Fiasco" as a way to demonstrate the full potential of virtual gifting, then brought the idea to Francis. "We loved how colorful and flashy and unpredictable his aesthetic is, so he was kind of the perfect artist for this concept," Arrigo says. Artists who use the feature in the future will collaborate with Wave to design personalized gifts for their shows, in the same way Wave helps artists create custom virtual spaces for their shows.
Wave was initially founded in 2016 as a virtual reality (VR) events company, but Arrigo announced plans to pivot away from VR in January, citing the slow adoption of VR into the marketplace. Part of the problem is that VR headsets are costly, starting around $300 apiece, while more expensive versions can run for thousands of dollars.
"We made the call that not enough headsets were sold and that the thing was still too expensive, and the experience wasn't good enough yet to be a mainstream product," Arrigo says. "Because our company's purpose is to unite humanity through immersive music experiences, it felt a little disingenuous -- in order to unite humanity, somebody had to spend $2,000 on a high-end Oculus Rift rig."
Until the VR industry matures, the company is shifting focus towards wider distribution of Waves through partnerships with social media and gaming companies like Roblox, Twitch and TikTok. That means more content along the lines of The Weeknd's TikTok LIVE concert in partnership with Wave in August, which reached over 3 million live viewers (total since it was rebroadcast after the TikTok premiere) and raised $350,000 for the Equal Justice Initiative.
Wave has been developing technology to put concerts together more quickly, and now, Arrigo says that his team can crank out a show for a smaller artist in just one or two days. Francis' performance took a matter of weeks to put together, he says, while The Weeknd's fiery, futuristic TikTok show took months: "Every frame had to be a cinematic masterpiece." Braun and Farman currently serve on the company's advisory board, alongside minds like video game executive Gordon Bellamy and Mike Winkelmann, the digital artist known as Beeple.
With the return of in-person live concerts on the horizon, Arrigo says his team is also working with several "really big artists" to plan Waves alongside upcoming tours. Wave has always focused on creating "a different revenue stream that's entirely additive" to physical concerts, rather than trying to replace them, he says -- and in fact, the word "concert" is completely absent from company's website. For these reasons, Arrigo is optimistic that the return of physical concerts won't detract from Waves, but instead give artists even more opportunities to incorporate Waves into their tours.
"I think you get into philosophical issues when your product resembles something that already exists," Arrigo says. "That's when you start to ask questions like, ‘What happens when concerts come back? What will happen to live streaming, which is a product that looks a lot like a concert?' I think Dillon Francis is always going to want to turn his head into a clam."
Francis seems to agree. "I definitely see myself doing more shows like this even when touring resumes," he says. "Metaverse stuff is so interesting to me, and Wave doing it for live shows like this just gets my inspiration gears going on what we can incorporate next."
Fans can RSVP for the free show at wave.watch/dillon-francis, which is also the link where "Total Fiasco" premieres on April 1 at 6 p.m. PST/9 p.m. EST. Fans can also watch the show on YouTube and Twitter (although they won't be able to interact with the show there).